Sadly, apologetically, this posting is neither fiction nor legend:
Last Saturday evening the hounds of hell, brandishing AK47s and bearing the black ski mask mark of cowards, emerged from a trio of hulking SUVs in front of a group of regular, everyday muchachos standing in front of one of the few civic halls in nearby Creel, a small rustic tourist outpost in my beloved Sierra Tarahumara, and – I hesitate to write this -, without speaking, they calmly massacred twelve young men, one college professor and – how does one write this? – a fourteen month-old baby.
Driving away, taking the only road leading into and out of town, witnessed by many and identified (understandably) by none, they left victims so utterly destroyed by their ruthlessly outsized firepower that several teenagers were all but unrecognizable and indistinguishable.
I think we need Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the moment.
Thirty-four years ago the smiling universe dropped me, innocent and open-hearted, into the most beautiful place i had yet to experience.
The small one-engine plane made a curving landing onto the dirt airstrip of Sisoguichi, in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico; and as we swooped to earth, impassively studied by a single Tarahumara man in yellow floral blouse and cream-colored cowboy hat, hand resting on his chin, amid the flourishing greenery and cool-grey rock outcroppings, I knew that I had somehow come home.
The mission pilot was wrangling his little plane into its corrugated metal hangar as a broad-smiling nun came crossing the creek to receive me, her indefatigable sidekick, a Tarahumara orphan girl named Tati, bobbing at her side, hand in happy hand.
Madre Olivia and I somehow made ourselves mutually understood, despite being monolingual in separate languages; and I can still recall clearly – 34 years, 2 months, and 18 days later – the major events that followed on that first day.
Clearer still is my recollection of the moment the next morning – my 22nd birthday – when I spotted the tall, thin, apple-cheeked girl who immediately became my reason for remaining in la Sierra after my volunteer work was done – and who three years later became (as she remains) my wife, Mimi.
La Sierra’s endless and endlessly amazing skies; its Rembrandtian light penetrating adobe walls; its rich and communitarian cultures; its trusting and generous people; their melodic and laughter-filled languages -all bore into my heart’s core and erased any longing I harbored before arriving. Each assured me: you are from here now, you are of this place.
So it has remained, more than thirty years, that whenever we return to la Sierra to visit family, I feel an easing of nerves, an erasure of tension, when our car begins its ascent into those gorgeous green mountains bedecked with great grey rock. To this day I refer to la Sierra as “back home,” as assuredly and naturally as if I had been born there – because I truly felt, that first summer, that I was reborn there, both culturally and spiritually.
All of the art and writing I have created in the three decades since that summer has been nourished by my immersion in that world.
Which is why Monday night’s hope-crushing news, with its murder and its grief, weighs on my chest like one of la Sierra’s gargantuan grey rocks.
As unimaginable arms and inconceivable outside forces converge on this isolated countryside of great beauty and hard labor, the traditions and certainties of generations are sent spiraling out of orbit, and gravity loosens its grip.
Folklore to the contrary, violence has been rare here and trust and courtesy the norm. My first summer in la Sierra Tarahumara, without exception, strangers received me into their homes, sat me at their kitchen table, and served me coffee and flour tortillas as a civilizing bond.
When violence erupted, it was individual and focused, and its narrative easy to follow.
What do we do now, when the janjaweed of the drug lords are unleashed unannounced, to slaughter a meek and humble people already battered by drought, poverty, and scant access to education and jobs?
Saint Oswin’s Feast Day is today, his tale – like the news back home – one of conflict, treachery, and wanton murder.
As our family, friends, and neighbors, in Creel and beyond, pace uneasily, ashen-faced and heartbroken in their now-threatened homes, Venerable Bede’s description of Saint Oswin rings true for last weekend’s victims – and for the people there I’ve known, as well:
“most generous to all men and above all things humble… of graceful bearing, with pleasant manner and engaging address”
En Paz Descanzan.